Isle of Wight adopts state transgender policies

Published 3:11 pm Monday, October 23, 2023

Isle of Wight County’s School Board voted 3-2 on Oct. 12 to adopt new transgender student policies the Virginia Department of Education released in July.

Board members Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham cast the dissenting votes.

Former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed legislation in 2020 requiring school boards to adopt policies “consistent with” or “more comprehensive than” model policies the VDOE released in 2021. The 2023 version the VDOE developed under Northam’s Republican successor, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, rolls back many of the 2021 provisions.

The 2023 policy document, titled “Model Policies on Ensuring Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools,” asserts the 2021 policies to have “promoted a specific viewpoint aimed at achieving cultural and social transformation in schools” that “disregarded the rights of parents.”

LGBTQ advocates, however, contend the new policies will effectively require teachers to “out” transgender students to unsupportive parents who may disown them.

Among the changes to School Board Policy JO, which pertains to student records, is a provision taken verbatim from the state language that states no written policy, guidance, training or other material issued by IWCS may encourage or instruct teachers to “conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.” The language is a reversal of the 2021 policies, which had asserted that “if a student is not ready or able to safely share with their family about their gender identity, this should be respected.”

The policy further restricts school personnel to using “only the pronouns appropriate to the sex appearing in the student’s official record,” another reversal from 2021 model policy language that had characterized the “intentional and persistent refusal” of school employees to use a transgender student’s preferred name and pronouns as “discriminatory.”

Verbatim language from the 2023 state model policies was also added to School Board Policy JFCAB, which pertains to student participation in school activities. The policy now states that participation in sex-segregated extracurricular activities and athletics “shall be determined by sex rather than by gender identity,” with the term “sex” defined as “biological sex.”

The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in 2020, ruled restrictions limiting transgender students to single-user bathrooms or those matching a student’s sex at birth as unconstitutional. A provision of Policy JFCAB now states that when state or federal law requires schools to permit transgender students to share otherwise sex-segregated facilities, parents “shall be given the right to opt their child(ren) out of using such facilities, and their child(ren) shall be given access to alternative facilities that promote the child(rem)’s privacy and safety.”

Ahead of the vote, county residents argued for and against the policy changes during the meeting’s public comment period. Four speakers said they favored the changes, another four opposed them, and one speaker – Laura Fletcher of Smithfield – urged the board to go beyond the model policies in ending accommodations for transgender students.

“The physical, mental and emotional well-being of every child is undoubtedly the business of the parent,” said Candice Vande Brake, a parent from Windsor. “At the end of the day the parents entrust their children to the government public school.”

Carrollton parent Caitlin McNiece, however, called the new policy language “anti-trans.”

“You don’t respect trans children or trans people,” McNeice said. “It is easier for you to hide them, to pretend they don’t exist.”

Cunningham, prior to casting his vote, asked School Board Attorney Pakapon “Pak” Phinyowattanachip whether the board was required by law to adopt the new model policies, which Phinyowattanachip advised against addressing in open session. The board then voted to go into a 10-minute closed session, after which Cunningham voted “nay” on Vice Chairman Jason Maresh’s motion to adopt the policy additions as written.

“I don’t see anything wrong with what we already have in place,” said Tynes, ahead of casting her own “nay” vote.

School Board Chairman John Collick and board member Mark Wooster joined with Maresh in supporting the new policy additions.

When the VDOE under Northam wrote the original 2021 model policies, the School Board under then-Chairwoman Jackie Carr voted to add a legal reference to the 2020 law rather than adopt verbatim the transgender accommodations listed in the 27-page 2021 document.

“We’re not consistent with the (2021) model policies if we’re not doing all the other stuff that’s in those pages,” Carr had said during a School board work session on the matter that year.